Somatic and Geographical Bodies:
Constructions of Gender and Nature in the 20th Century

[Published in Space and Culture, 14 (1), 2010]

Over the past century, gender has been examined as a factor which is automatically posited as either part of an integral dimension of personhood or which is situated as a locus of difference—be it biological, linguistic, cultural, or sexual.  As such, in the past fifteen years gender has become a point of contention within identity politics (feminist and queer theories) since the “realness” of gender as linked to certain sexed bodies has come under scrutiny.  Older forms of interpreting and constructing gender as difference have been resurrected from the cinders of linguistic, ontological and epistemological discourses and reanimated within current social and theoretical fabrics.  Likewise post-structuralist theory has attempted to corrode the very manichean tendencies in Western thought which heretofore sought to tease out and separate one gender from another.  Not surprisingly, much of post-structuralist theory has led to an even greater entrenchment of these very dichotomies of gender.  Certainly, the inherent presupposition of gendered difference which automatically marks subjectivity within the preordained schemes of being of either feminine or masculine inevitably maintains all identity as real,  pervasively homogeneous, intractably different, and inevitably stuck within the tradition of Cartesian metaphysics in which discourses of the other are necessarily inveterate.

One of the most notable studies of gender and philosophy of recent years is Judith Butler’s book, Gender Trouble (1990) wherein she critiques the work of Simone de Beauvoir and Luce Irigaray.  I would like to turn here to all three writers and attempt to review certain historical “givens” of gender.   De  Beauvoir argues in La deuxième sexe that the feminine gender is Other, and thus women, being defined in terms of their sex, hover under the bodiless, universal construct of the masculine for whom sex as identity is incidental.  Considering the strategies of Freud, Lacan, Barret, Cixous, de Lauretis, Wittig, just to name a few, one can hardly deny the notion of woman as “other”.  But what does this positing of “other” really mean for gender and feminist theories today?  And what is the nature of alterity as a linguistic nominate and a discursive locus in a world where the division between language and identity is increasingly becoming blurred?  For the problem that immediately comes to mind when confronting recent discourses of alterity is that there is clearly a cultural schizophrenia when dealing with gender in the West.  On the one hand, when reading women as “other” the feminine inevitably remains the singular object of a discourse which insists upon a dissolution of its language thus marking its marginalization—that the feminine can somehow be liberated through the destruction of the very language which others itself.   And conversely, the discourse of the feminine as other inevitably struggles with language that does not position the feminine as the negative dialectic of the masculine—that there is a certain investment in maintaining the binary structure masculine/feminine whereby each maintains its “difference”.  Certainly, the  discourse of woman as “other” is highly problematic:  for how can woman be represented if the language of the masculine (and its traces) must be destroyed in order to faithfully represent her, while nonetheless the signification of the feminine is based upon gender being two-fold: masculine/feminine.

Butler’s  Gender Trouble situates the dilemma of gender not as a paradigm in which the  masculine dominates the feminine as within the “master/slave” tradition, but instead locates the discursive construction of gender as burdened by the effort to separate and make “intelligible” the relationships between sex, gender, and sexuality:

“Intelligible” genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire.  In other words, the spectres of discontinuity and incoherence, themselves thinkable only in relation to existing norms of continuity and coherence, are constantly prohibited and produced by the very laws that seek to establish causal or expressive lines of connection among biological sex, culturally constituted genders, and the “expression” or “effect” of both in the manifestation of sexual desire though sexual practice…The cultural matrix through which gender identity has become intelligible requires that certain kinds of “identities” cannot “exist”—that is, those in which gender does not follow from sex and those in which the practices of desire do not “follow” from either sex or gender (p. 17).

For Butler, the body is the canvas incarnate which, correlative to its sex, is saturated, marked, and encoded with fixed cultural, epistemic and linguistic markings of gender and sexuality.  As such, the body is both the space of performance and the site of subversion or redemption of gender, sex and sexuality.  Reciprocally, it might follow that the performance of gender and sexuality would necessarily subvert the discursive markings of the body, invoking a restructuring of the relationship between the somatic and the performative.  However, this is not possible according to Butler’s reading since she views the body as the site of both designating and subverting identity.  The somatic is the mirror of language for Butler—it either confirms that which we already knew and named, or it completely opposes it, toppling the linguistic structures of knowledge and its corporeal references.   And this is the point of incision in which the lack of language (that de Beauvoir evidences) and the flaw of language (that Irigaray discusses) emerge in Butler.  She does not entirely resolve the problem of representation as effective, as seamless, and instead of positing the language of representation as being flawed or as lacking, she invokes the body as the “signifying lack.”  In her critique of Foucault’s notion of power, Butler translates the “interior psychic space” (the soul) as that which “contests and displaces the inner/outer distinction,” the performative encoding the body, exterior indices marking the somatic, thus linking external and internal power, external and internal spaces of gender.  Hence the body must always be interpreted in relationship to its performative.

Butler offers two spheres of somatic signification:  the physical (sex) and the performative (gender), in which the body is marked by a third signifier, the drag performance; thus, the body becomes the site for inscribing identity since the body is always lacking a completed meaning in drag.  The drag performance is a seeking of meaning that usually remains incomplete, or at best ironized.  Unlike Foucault for whom meaning and power is always induced in the body, Butler maintains that the real and the representational in drag performances are interdependent whereby each reads the other persistently. By making a distinction between the physical and the performative while stressing the power of performativity, Butler opens up the possibility for examining the body as the superfice upon which meanings are inevitably inscribed, rather than creating a body as the unique coded transmitter which designates identity and gender:

The performance of drag plays upon the distinction between the anatomy of the performer and the gender that is being performed.  But we are actually in the presence of three contingent dimensions of performance.  If the anatomy of the performer is already distinct from the gender of the performer, and both of those are distinct from the gender of the performance, then the performance suggests a dissonance not only between sex and peformance, but sex and gender, and gender and performance.  As much as drag creates a unified picture of “woman” (what its critics often oppose), it also reveals the distinctness of those aspects of gendered experience which are falsely naturalized as a unity through the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence. In imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the imitative structure of gender itself—as well as its contingency (p. 137).

Discussing drag performance, Butler initially grounds her theory of gender as that which “imitates” when there is an “incongruity” between the somatic and the performative—that is when gender and the body are, under conventional standards, antagonistic.  Later in her discussion of the performative, Butler uses the discourse of drag to question the very performative of gender when “incongruity”  is not an issue:  “If the body is not a “being”, but a variable boundary, a surface whose permeability is politically regulated, a signifying practice within a cultural field of gender hierarchy and compulsory heterosexuality, then what language is left for understanding this corporeal surface?” (p. 139).  In effect, Butler locates gender as the posturing and stylization of the body and not vice versa, the body dictating the performance.  So what, exactly, does the body imitate and what is the identity created?  For if, as Butler asserts, identity must be comprised as “social temporality” and if gender is truly “internally discontinuous”, then the body becomes a manufactured identity for which there is no “real” and, conversely, where there is no “play”.  Moreover, gender can be subverted by various performances without necessarily having to “cross-dress” per se, as alterity takes on many manifestations that reach far beyond a gender binary of man/woman, masculine/feminine, all while revealing the superfices of the nature/construction binary.  It is from this nexus of somatic/performative and nature/construction that I shall herein analyse the presumed “natural” body and the various theories of constructed bodies of gender and sex as developed throughout the twentieth century social theory, political discourse  and art.

In the late 20th century, there is a plethora of artists who deal with the performatives of gender from Cindy Sherman, Andreas Serrano, Marina Abramovic, Andy Warhol, Annie Sprinkle, Mona Hatoum, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Robert Gober, just to name a few.  In fact, many of these artists work to deconstruct the binaries of sex/gender from the body while also freeing the double-bond of nature/performance from the gendered human form.  Most poignantly Matthew Barney’s sculpture, Cremaster I, deconstructs gender as we observe a complex mise en scène of interior and exterior images:  a blimp flying over a football field, the androgynous bodies of twiggy, modelesque, blonde women in stewardess uniforms who guard over a white banquet table  into  which  grapes  change  colors  and  disappear into the  table’s central  orifice.

Cremaster I, 1995

Beneath this sterile banquet is yet another thin, blonde woman who remains affixed to the underside of the table as she takes in the grapes through the hole.  She is part of the table physically, part of the gendered construction of the feminine-morphed-supermodel whose body is much more akin to that of a thin boy than a Rubens-esque woman. She is liminal as woman, liminal as embodied.    And down on earth below, we return to the football field where women in androgynous clothes fill the green as they form and reform the shapes of ovaries when viewed from the floating blimps above.  Barney’s sculpture is an amalgamation of theoretical language, high fashion, gender performances and erasures, while the bodies depicted deny singularity.  Cremaster I serves to highlight a reading of the body while reinforming the importance of discourse as a means—perhaps as the only means—through which the somatic can be accessed and constructed in the late 20th century.

Cremaster I, 1995

Tacit to Barney’s study of the body is clearly the need to excavate and reexamine the links between the epistemological and performative artifacts of the body, the individual and the historical narratives of the somatic, as well as the rearticulations of the body which feminist and poststructuralist theory has recently evidenced.  Sex and gender become a process which we do not passively see constructed or deconstructed within Barney’s Cremaster I,  but which we actively construct in rendering clearly versed statements and critiques regarding the gender specificity of body, fashion, privilege, and theoretical language.  Barney’s sculpture deals with the body as organic matter that can be stylized, ornamented, and integrated within the very “unnatural” surroundings that are consciously void of a social narrative or vision, ultimately questioning which is more artificial, which is more constructed, which is more gendered—the sexed body or the blue astro-turf?  For when viewed from afar, Barney’s bodies take on the technological impulses of dot matrices and mathematical arrangements within a playing field made to represent various gender symbols, and when viewed up close these bodies resemble a 1930’s water ballet actresses of Hollywood (bringing together the masculine trope of sports and the feminine trope of grace and “style”) who don highly fashioned clothes so as to make paradoxical the relationship between sex as ontology and gender as a cultural topography.  What seems “natural” (the grass of the football field) is juxtaposed by the “seemingly natural” (the human form) and the recognition that one is indeed faces with a construction of nature —that nature might not have an origin per se — forces the spectator to rethink the other until the signification and collapse of meanings bring the natural and the constructed together under the fictionalization of the human body as relayed to us in one seamless narrative, Cremaster I.  One can no longer see the see line between nature and construction and is forced to view both as a holistic totality, a space where in the blimps are both symbols of testes, while they are also testes, wherein the women on the field or trapped under the table are both not women, yet they are.  The trompe l’oeil of nature is unleashed in the most surreal of narratives as the main figure on the field, carries two miniature blimps as her futuristic, Rockette-esque uniform symbolizes an earthly woman.

Cremaster I, 1995

Ultimately, Barney’s sculpture projects the body as a juncture between biological construction and cultural interpolation; between technology and aesthetics; between nature and artifice; and between the performative and the static.  His sculpture evidences the body and its various physical valences—fashion, technology, work, sports—while consciously failing to provide a linear narrative linking one moment to the next and likewise denying the spectator any truth of gender.  Barney’s work establishes the  simultaneous gendering/genderless qualities of the body in an installation in which the viewer longs to make sense of the various events taking place, and instead is made to watch the slow paced film in which no narrative and no real emerges.  The body is virtually melded within the frameworks of artificial physical spaces and technologies—we can no longer separate the physical anatomy from its sterile and mechanic surroundings no matter how hard we wish to essentialize and isolate the “real” or authentic.  The body, as such, is culture(d) and we, as spectators and performers, are the agents of this naturalizing, gendering, and sexing as we watch waiting for something real to emerge from the screen and from the earth—the football field as progenitor of bodies, as a creative force of genders.

For certainly, at the very basis of the interrogations of sex and gender and of the real and performative, is the very fundamental question of nature versus artifice.  Indeed, few feminist theorists have dealt with this question, though not surprisingly, in addition to Matthew Barney, land artists in the United States from the 1960’s have been dealing directly with the form and function of public sculpture and the recreation, or rather reinvention, of nature through “artificial” constructions.  Most notably, Robert Smithson, land artist and critic, worked and wrote about the constructed nature of “Non-site” during the 1960’s and early 1970’s until his death in 1973:

The Non-Site (an indoor earthwork) is a three dimensional logical picture that is abstract, yet it represents an actual site in N.J. (The Pine Barrens Plains).  It is by this three dimensional metaphor that one site can represent another site which does not resemble it—thus The Non-Site.  To understand this language of sites is to appreciate the metaphor between the syntactical construct and the complex of ideas, letting the former function as a three dimensional picture which doesn’t look like a picture.  “Expressive art” avoids the problem of logic; therefore it is not truly abstract.  A logical intuition can develop in an entirely “new sense of metaphor” free of natural or realistic expressive content.  Between the actual site in the Pine Barrens and The Non-Site itself exists a space of metaphoric significance.  It could be that “travel” in this space is a vast metaphor.  Everything between the two sites could become  physical metaphorical material devoid of natural meanings and realistic assumptions.  Let us say that one goes on a fictitious trip if one decides to go to the site of the Non-Site The “trip” becomes invented, devised, artificial;  therefore, one might call it a non-trip to a site from a Non-site.   Once he arrives at the “airfield,” one discovers that it is man-made in the shape of a hexagon, and that I mapped this site in terms of esthetic boundaries rather than political or economic boundaries (p. 364).

Thus the Non-Site is the space where nature is reconstructed and where not only the Non-Site, but also nature (the actual site), are emptied of their “natural meanings and realistic assumptions”.   In other words, the Non-Site is released from the burden of having to refer to an original, a natural or a  real and where identity is not charged with the obligation of having to respond to the real (since each real is found to be just as constructed as the Non-Site).  Ultimately the real and natural for Smithson do not exist as romantic ideals and instead are merely “fictions” of past centuries.   In this way, the Non-Site is every bit as legitimate and real (and fictive) as the original” whereby geographical structures are erected as trompe l’oeil of nature and where nature is reformulated as fiction much in the same way that gender and sex are constructed in mid-twentieth century feminist theory.

Spiral Jetty, 1970

Indeed, the works of Smithson indicate the dilemma of gender from de Beauvoir, Irigaray and Butler: that of the lack (in language or the body).  The insufficiency of language in de Beauvoir, the defectiveness of language in Irigaray, and the insufficiency of the body to signify gender in Butler, would seem to indicate that all three theorists are investing far too much meaning in a true representation which reveals a real.  Alternately, using Smithson’s Non-Site and translating this geography to the human body, we could easily fathom a Non-Body, a body which is performative and always in construction and a site upon which all meaning is temporal, incidental, and subjective in which place is  always constructed.  If we divest our interest in naming the body, we make room for other bodies upon which multiple readings are possible and whereby language resonates, but does not weigh down in singularity, reduction or systems of logic.

Non-Site- Line of Wreckage, Bayonne, New Jersey, 1968

If we dispose with the idea that language or corporeality must express clearly or linearly, we would be opening up social discourse to understanding the body as a field of meanings upon which are vectored historical, linguistic and cultural traces.  Just as the Non-Site, the Non-Body has no “original” gender, no true sex, and certainly nothing natural about it.

Why is it then, that feminist and queer theories so readily accept static bodies of sex and yet these same theories continually contest the “veracity” of monolithic constructions of gender and sexuality?  Issues of transsexualism, for instance,  address in a fascinating way the very same issues of land art, but are distinctly at the other end of the spectrum.  Where land art is generally disinterested in origin and  essential meaning, transsexualism is entirely gripped in the machinery of finding, replicating and assimilating the body, making it real.

Nonsite, 1968

Yet the realness of the body calls into question the very construction of sexed and gendered bodies, as the lines between the real and the automaton, the flesh and the machine serve to recreate the scene for understanding gender and sex as both somatic  and technological.  Georges Canguilhem’s well-known essay, “Machine and Organism”, evidences the empirical and ontological fields of consciousness and matter—ontological because of matter’s thingness (res) and empirical because of the individual’s construction of the first-person singular, consciousness.  Canguilhem’s genealogy of technological and automaton bodies verifies the model of the human body as that which is neither purely physical, nor purely mechanical, as he evidences in his elaboration of Descartes’ bodies as matter born from technology.  In fact, the most decisive moment in Canguilhem’s essay is when he discusses the use of mechanical models to explain organisms:

In short, with the Cartesian explanation, it might appear that we have not moved beyond the idea of finality or inner purposiveness.  The reason for this is that if we limit ourselves to the workings of the machine, everything can be explained by the theory of mechanism; the theory cannot account for the construction of the machine itself. Machines do not construct other machines, and it could even be said that, in a sense, explaining organs or organisms through mechanical models amounts to explaining the organ by means of itself (p. 55, emphasis mine).

As Canguilhem confirms, the human body during the Industrial Revolution was mediated as if it were a machine in the effort to make more efficient the labor process.  What was deemed wasteful action was simply eliminated from the stage of human labor.  Workers were trained in how to be  more like a machine and although the body did not cease to exist, the language of labor and industry certainly changed the way the body was conceived,  treated, and represented.

Let us, first see how this body might function in today’s theatre of labor.  In translating Canguilhem’s machine-like body of the Industrial Revolution to the body of contemporary labor today, we might notice how the corporal in Europe and North America has become the habitus for quite different modalities of regulation and mediation.  Instead of being like a machine which expedites mechanical processes of production, the body of the early third millennium is postured as a field which both competes with and informs technology.  Given that machinery is dissipating and technology growing in the world labor market in the West, we see the body make a similar trajectory as more and more bodies  are moving away from the soot-filled hulls of factories and are beginning to fill the micro-office structures of corporations where the body  “operates” the controls of sleek, sterile technological surfaces.  Nonetheless, this body must resist all forms of physical decrepitude and disease in order to produce and compete with a technological corpus that never rests and rarely ever breaks down (hence the body aims to “keep fit” with gyms, yoga, diets, natural medicines, vitamins).  Also, the body is  an  agent that informs the development and stylization of technology (Walkmans, Palm Pilots, ergonomics, Stairmasters) whereby it is difficult to understand if the body is an extension of technology or technology an extension of the body.  Though it would seem that the body and technology are inter-referential since technology takes on the language of the somatic as much as the body mirrors the language of technology—computers and people crash, catch viruses, sleep, wake up, get updated, and break down.  The somaticization of technology and the technologization of the body indicate a growing obsession in Western culture with the protraction of life and a contemporaneous denial of death which is best evidenced by the technologization of war.  This specific paradigm manifests a growing denial of mortality in Western culture where the physical Western body of death is sanitized and made invisible in media while conversely the death of the non-Western body is not only commonplace, but it becomes framed within the neo-orientalist language of “poverty and corruption”.

Thus, when converting Canguilhem’s earlier notion of physical and mechanical matter to the stage of the somatic and technology, understanding sex as intractable is problematic at best.  Although Canguilhem views the idea and the mimetic (divine art) as fundamental to the construction of the body, he preferences the idea of the body as the real, since the body is the model of and for the machine.  In this fashion, the body is as real as it is performative—it is always becoming.  Manifesting the body as a physicality whose only reference to the real is its very representation as technology,

Canguilhem analysed Jacque Vaucanson’s mechanical duck, 1739 in discussing the link between machine and body

Canguilhem evidences “technological anthropomorphism” as the point of rationalizing the very mimetic function of production from which and within which the body operates, thus rendering the body like technology and technology like the body.  It is this unstable plateau of matter that Canguilhem analyzes as he struggles with the telos of the pre-Cartesian physical world and  Cartesian  techniques of production and self-regulation of anthropomorphic mechanisms.  Ultimately, Canguilhem asserts that the nexus between technological and organic bodies is a problem that pervades both facile interpretation of function within a holistic functioning and teleological understanding.  By examining sex as a physical function or constituent of the body, we can see that sex has much more to do with the idea of corporeality than with its reality as manifested via technological representation.  As I mentioned earlier, the body is a competitor with technology, yet I would take this further and confirm that the inverse is also true:  technology is being modeled to exceed the limits of the somatic coinstantaneously to the body being fashioned as technological.  Given that technology has made possible the mutability of sex through surgery (while effectuating the legal language of sex), the cloning of flesh, and the reproduction of human life using the chromosomes of two sperm (instead of a sperm and an egg), it is implausible to view sex as any more determinate than sexuality or gender.

Interestingly enough, it is at the crossroads of where technology, nature and sex meet, that some of the most interesting theories on the body are being produced—more specifically, in the domain of transsexual cyber-bodies.  Roseanne Alluquère Stone’s article, “Virtual Systems,” takes further this idea of technology and the somatic, evidencing the terrain where technology is nature:

By entering into technology we tacitly agree to view certain imaginary movements as literal.  This action activates the extreme permeability of boundaries between a politically authorized social entity and a technical prosthetics that characterizes the technosocial, in the space we find there, at once technological and social, we become aware of new kinds of beings who inhabit the phantasmic spaces of technology.  They are at home in an environment whose existence has not even been recognized by those not deeply immersed in an age of instantaneous communication—they are beings for whom technology is nature, for whom elsewhere is geography, for whom the problematic tie between unitary awareness and unitary physical body has political consequences (p. 610).

And indeed, Stone’s concept of the technological body functions as a Non-Body whereby all assumed meaning is divorced from the physical, and instead the body takes on multiple meanings depending on its relationship with real and imagined spatial surroundings, gesture and performance, other bodies, and desire.  The technological body necessitates that we dispose with the notion of a  “real,” sexed body and instead requires us to embrace the mixing of genres, forms and functions.  Just as Matthew Barney’s Cremaster I produces a universe of corporeal ambiguity and gender uncertainty, technological spaces offer a macrocosm for disavowing narrativized, fixed or real bodies.   Instead of being a purely somatic space of skin, tissue, bones, and sex, the body is a field of physical and technological textures traversed by fictional and virtual signifiers in which the symbolic and the immediacy of presence and the imaginary of desire become inextricably intertwined, collapsed, and interdependent.  Barney’s Cremaster I bodies, like Stone’s “Posttranssexual Manifesto”, offer a poetics of the somatic as a possibility for undoing the bonds of traditional double binaries in Western philosophy.  For Stone this is a poetics which is not directly co-opted on the feminist battlefield of redemption, rectification, politicization, and rehistoricization, but rather this body is the corpus of fragmentation, simulation, transgression, destruction, and recreation in which access to both sex and gender is neither clearly defined nor absolute.

Such artifacts of bodily inscriptions and performances evidence the dilemma of Western discourse to break down the binaries of sex and gender.  Instead of breaking apart the linguistic fetters binding sex and gender, Western culture has simply turned one gender against another in discourses of hegemony and marginalization such that our cultural politics have negotiated the “battle of the sexes”, “women’s rights”, and so forth.  (Of course, this is not to say that on the political frontier there are no problems of inequality between men and women that political discourses should address.)  Simply put, the language of sex remains decidedly resolute in representing  the difference between each sex and gender, such that there is nothing left to sex and gender but difference.  In positing the masculine, against a weaker and oppressed adversary, the feminine (as in de Beauvoir), or in maintaining the feminine’s marginality to the phallogocentric in all schemes of representation and language (as Irigaray would maintain), gender is taken out of one set of binaries (ie. mind/body) and in perpetuum catapulted into the machinery of identity politics and difference (ie. center and margin, empowered and disempowered).  Butler’s reading of the somatic establishes that language cannot represent the somatic and that the body is dependent upon gender performances (representation) as the only manner of inflecting the body with meaning.  Her reading becomes quite problematic, however, when she differentiates realness from subversiveness (relying upon traditional notions of sex as her real references), while demonstrating certain identity (and performance) as more real than others.

By making visible the polysemous nature of sex and gender across  bodies, language, and performances, can we not begin to engage the poetics of the body within a sphere in which there is no longer access to any real?  Ultimately, in attempting to draw comparisons and contrasts to and from bodies of maleness and femaleness we end up reaffirming their very discursive “natures” rather than unearthing something which might be more elemental, more intrinsic to the body physical in which difference is not the sole marker of identity.  It is no surprise, given this adherence to traditional modes of reading bodies of sex and gender, that the words vagina and penis are decisively absent in many texts discussing sex.  That the body as male or female has remained as entrenched within the language of its very simulation is what we have come to expect of sex and gender for these denominations still remain popularly conflated:  the sexed body and gendered behavior is intelligible either in its normative, traditional use or in its subversion.  In other words, we clearly recognize and reaffirm the woman as a sex if we were to see the shape of a breast underneath a dress.  On the other hand, we are likely to question this authentic identity of woman if the this very same person were to turn away from the viewer and urinate, standing up, against a wall.  Space and the body are read against each other and one can render the other illogical at any given moment.    Thus, there are many plausible readings, all of which force the reader to distinguish—even if unconsciously—between sex and gender:  this person is transvestite, a pre-operational transsexual, an “unladylike” woman, and so forth.  Readings of sexed bodies tend to reaffirm the cultural consignments of what sex relegates to gendered behavior as if there were a direct correlation between the sexed body and gender behavior of that body, as if one inflected meaning on the other.  And indeed this is what happens in many cultural mappings of identity.

It is for this reason that I find a certain resonance of logic and, dare I say, freedom, in theories of technology and performance—for the natural and the performed are always in a state of construction.  As Stone writes in the context of transsexualism:

“The most critical thing a transsexual can do, the thing that constitutes success, is to “pass.” Passing means to live successfully in the gender of choice, to be accepted as a “natural” member of that gender.  Passing means the denial of mixture.  One and the same with passing is effacement of the prior gender role, or the construction of a plausible history…It is my contention that this process, in which both the transsexual and the medicolegal/psychological establishment are complicit, forecloses the possibility of a life grounded in the intertextual possibilities of the transsexual body” (1991, pp. 296-297).

Stone’s argument,I believe, needs to be brought out of its self-contained realm of transgendered bodies, and thrown into the mainstream of “originary” gendered bodies.  The social obligation to have and perform gender (unfortunately, the subject is generally limited to one) commits the subject to either confirming traditional notions of such, or negating one gender or the other. In examining the limitations and structures  of gender as  representability, we assume that gender, for the biological or “right” body to be assimilable as natural, that passing for these bodies goes unnoticed, unprocessed, unperformed.  As much as the transsexual body is an arena of concomitant refusal and acceptance of physicality and performativity (pre-op and post-op), this also holds true for the invisible sutures guarding the body politic of “naturalized” sexes and “natural” performances of gender.  Like the transsexual, sex for any body is always a performance which either reaffirms the ability to pass and the realness of sex or questions the plausibility of sexual coding while simultaneously creating newer languages of intelligibility and ataxia.   For it is not Stone’s “posttranssexual” which might serve as the terrain upon which to build future ideals for reading bodies, but rather the “postsexual”—a corpus upon which a plurality of readings are simultaneously crisscrossed and resisted as performance and temporality maintain the fluidity of meanings.

As sex becomes understood as more fluid and less affixed to some scientific and social “real”, readings of gender and sexuality might more readily begin to advance a veritably fluid relationship to ambiguous bodies, desires, and gestures, in all “theatres” of gender performance.   The nexus of masculine and feminine as difference is a purely discursive break which we engage in order to make logical the bodies of maleness and femaleness by naming through language.   In the west, we embrace this reason as a means of linking “natural” genders with “natural” bodies and we tautologically enforce all readings of both gender and the somatic by re-inflecting their dédoublement in meaning—that is, that a certain gesture or comportment can be clearly interpreted as something else.   As such, we might argue that a gesture such as gesticulating one’s hands in conversation is feminine.  Likewise, this very same gesture performed by an Italian might underscore the speaker’s “Italianness”, or if performed by a gay man, it could be said to underscore his “gayness”.  In all cases, the cultural logic of reading the action reaffirms the system of interpretation which attempts to decode and encode somatic gestures. The system of reading identity—and not only sexual identity—is rarely questioned simply because we invest a great deal of  importance in the  language

Joey Arias as Billie Holiday in «Strange Fruit»

which establishes difference as ontology, visibility and even community.  Again, I return to Butler’s assertion that because Paris is Burning reformulates kinship (community), the real is achieved and the subversivity takes a “back seat” to tradition.  In this sense, New York’s Joey Arias who “channels” Billie Holiday, both metamorphizes and confuses voice and body to recreate the songs of the great songstress intersperse with the playful  “vulgarity” of drag, pushing the boundaries between real and fiction by constantly reminding the subject of these liminal spaces.

Inevitably, I would argue that not only Western discourse exercises a certain power in maintaining the stasis of the sex/gender “double bind”, but so too do arguments of gender theory which seek to establish a reading of the real through fundamentally conservative and equally problematic stereotypes of  whiteness, wealth, and community.  Inevitably such positioning of this kind of real will only lead to representations that either confirm or debate that specific type of real.  The use of language to identify bodies, a schema with which we are all too familiar due in large part to the work of Michel Foucault, is complicit in a certain ordering, surveillance and even control of such bodies.  Likewise, cultural theory and political discourse is caught up in this as demonstrated by cultural politics of the past decade in the United States which has produced a social environment in which there is a strong sense that language directly and even literally marks and makes real identity.  From the changes in names that we use within culture to refer to race, sexuality and even our virtual selves to the way we use naming to identify ourselves within a larger nexus of identity as empowerment, Western society clings to language as sole the transmitter of the real.  The phenomenon of “outing” in the gay community in the 1990’s, for example, evinces one of the ways in which the language of identity politics is often regarded as  both a compulsory act of “admitting” identity  and a way of belonging to a larger politicized community.  Indeed, one could “out” oneself in postmodern act of confessing, of belonging to the larger group of queerness, for instance, or one could remain silent and risk being outed, humiliated for not claiming the “truth” of such “identity”.  This paradigm of evoking “truth” through the language of confession as an act of empowerment is a most problematic paradox today, for Western culture privileges the visible and audible forms of sexuality and gender over those which are less visible and more silent.   Foucault confers this relationship between power and confession:

Confession frees, but power reduces one to silence;  truth does not belong to the order of power, but shares an original affinity with freedom:  traditional themes in philosophy, which a “political history of truth” would have to overturn by showing that truth is not a nature free—nor error servile—but that its production is thoroughly imbued with relations of power. The confession is an example of this (p. 60).

Indeed, confession in the west is the measure of freedom equating those subjects who confess as “free” and those who do not as necessarily politically impeded from exercising this freedom of self-identity to a larger social body.  For instance, there is a widespread belief in the west that the “confession” of homosexuality implicates a necessarily “freer” subject than, for instance, someone in the Muslim world who is assumed to be sexually repressed and/or oppressed because he or she does not “speak the same language” of sexual liberation.  The cynicism in many “marginalized” communities towards those individuals who refuse naming under traditional categories is abundant and this same impulse to name is based on the theory that visibility en mass is tantamount to empowerment, while anything other is generally regarded as “closeting” and social conformism.  This is, of course, an unsound coupling since we know that visibility simply neither evokes nor accompanies power.

But it is precisely this impulse to name that Western society utilizes in its pretense of exercising many freedoms of sexuality and gender while, all along, bodies remain steadfastly intractable to language of certainty and truth.  In many senses, current gender discourse has ghettoized itself in claiming a certain “freedom” of identity by asserting the very tools of language and visibility that heretofore had marginalized that very identity.  At the same time, however, the current discourses of gender have sought solidarity in varying topographies.  We can see how the language of gender has become a neocolonializing force projected across various socio-economic strata and geographies, inflecting singular meaning upon “non-white” and “third world” bodies.  More specifically, we observe this trend in academia where “queering” texts and cinema across cultural boundaries is now commonplace and absolutely replicates the very colonial imperatives that mark, for instance, Cesaire Lombroso’s nineteenth century investigations of criminality and race in Southern Italy.   As Malti-Douglas writes, perhaps this obsession with “outing” is the veneer for a deeper problematic relationship to both homosexuality and homosexuality: “There is a tendency in the West to interpret examples of homosociality as indexes of latent or overt homosexuality.  But this is really a reflection of the obsessional relationship of Western culture with homosexuality, and the culture’s homophobia, since the later Middle Ages” (p. 15).  Gender studies in the west, as such, would seem to be in crisis as our will to free meaning through language has, somewhere down the road, taken a wrong turn and become an absolute imperative to name, confirm and stabilize as “ours”.

It is not enough, as Butler endeavors, to claim that the performance of gender is somehow always either transcendental or subversive of contemporary social relations since her analysis of drag culture—despite what she claims to theorize—necessarily  implicates the performing subject’s body in either sameness or opposition.  If we are to understand the multi-dimensionality of Non-Bodies and Nonsites, we must be willing to relinquish our hold on language and the tropes for defining singular, real, and natural identities.  As well, we must forego monolithic perceptions and expressions of the human body as any more natural than the body’s surrounding geographies, technologies and architectures.  Instead, what I am proposing is a release of language as the sole bearer of identity and an embrace of the constructed, fashioned, technologized, performed and topographically embellished body.  For language is but one of many tools for impressing and reflecting identity—and it just may be the very nature of language to inscribe which is the danger for those who advocate fluid bodies of non-identities.  For language is an instrument of encoding, of transiently inflecting meaning, but coupled with the power of discourse—which records meaning and reinflects it time and time again—language carves out a deeply entrenched texture of place, time and history.  In a certain way, we need to conterminously believe and disbelieve language in order to leave open the possibilities of temporal rewritings and silences, but perhaps this is a most awesome task to ask.  Likewise, I would suggest that identity politics which are tethered to the every letter and hyphen of newly named races, sexes, genders and sexualities ought to be rethought.  Simply put, these are not solutions to a much deeper paradox.

The problem with the incommensurability of  bodies or language, the “lack” as it were, has everything to do with the way that language and bodies are objectified quite literally.  This lack is manifested because of the ways in which we have discursively aligned identities diachronically in the language of history, science and politics to specific bodies, through specific language.  Butler’s work initially opens up many possibilities of perpetually re-reading gender and sexuality through performance and language, but then this structure entirely collapses as if a house of cards because she has eliminated from her discourse the very arbitrary nature of all bodies and identities (to include those of “masculinist domination”).  Performativity is simply not about belonging or opposing some prior ideal or tradition.  Performativity is also about discovering the potentialities of such traditions and re-performing them, it is about confusing order, and it is mostly about bodies enacting temporality, consciousness, and desires while also interacting in a world of other bodies with their own trajectories of temporality, consciousness, and desires.  The west is a culture where, at times, language is used far too literally and where utterances are really believed to be what they say.  Indeed, this can be useful to effect business.  In fact, at times language can seem like a crystal ball in the west.  But there are severe downfalls  to a cultural use  of language in which naming presupposes essence and in which  all identity must necessarily give into the public act of identifying oneself, confessing to be like x, and yes, even of belonging. It is Butler’s shaky positing of  “kinship”  as “oppositional discourse”, that ultimately is the site for reprocessing language, social relations and bodies under the rubric of the normative, the stable, the same.  Not only do I fail to see anything “oppositional” or subversive in this gesture of redeeming togetherness as identity, I believe such romantic visions of belonging (to a larger nexus of same-identified bodies) form part of the very ideological substratum upon which sex/gender binaries are also constructed.  Identity politics of the late twentieth century has evidenced that marginal identities which coalesce and form united fronts against social and political oppression are fraught with the very problems of splintering, of non-conformism, and of, justly,  non-like identities.  To offer kinship as a way of recreating community that somehow conjoins the “marginalized”, we fail to recognize that the center/margin dichotomy artificially imposes the center as normative and the marginal as difference and that amongst the so-called “marginalized” are a great many different bodies and voices.  Ultimately, we fail to understand the very complexities and discontinuities that metanarratives of ulterior identity can never bring out.

One example that comes to mind is the massive gather of the Promise Keepers, a gathering of American Christian men in October 1997.  I was in Washington  D.C. when the Promise Keepers convened in a weekend which was dedicated to “healing” and “bonding”.   I noticed how the first few Promise Keepers I came across on the streets looked very white, very male, very Christian.  Then I saw a few dozen more of these similar bodies, all having the same aesthetics of fashion—shorts, sneakers, t-shirts and baseball caps.  And I thought, “More white, male Christians.”  Then after the day progressed and my passages around D.C. became increasingly more dense as by mid-afternoon I and my friend were surrounded by several thousand of these men.  What was supposed to feel Christian solidarity suddenly did not feel like this at all and at once I turned to my friend, Bruno, and remarked, “Doesn’t this feel like Gay Pride?”  Bruno confessed he was thinking the same thing but did not want to say it out loud.

The Promise Keepers, Washington D.C. 1997

There we were in an epistemic conflict surrounded by thousands of men who in their very masses were no longer readable to me as straight, white Christian men—for I noticed few other ethnicities present, I noticed the drab fashion statements contagious amongst the masses, and I read the various Christian sloganed t-shirts.  Yet, compositely I could only read this gathering of men as “gay male”.  I could no longer see straight men before me, but instead I saw a very homophillic atmosphere, a very queer space of men loving men.  Ironically, the very mechanisms which would render my interpretation as false conterminously rendered it as true for the signs of straightness and gayness—the actions of the love of Jesus and the love of fellow man—were truly conflated. The largeness of D.C.’s mall, tens of thousands of male bodies in all states of concealment and exposure, the “natural” surroundings of the green grass and white monuments undercut any possibility of a correct reading, of a singular and clear interpretation of this gathering.   Just as Smithson’s rendering of the land in Passaic, New Jersey (“A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”, 1967) and his many creations of Nonsites, reverberate the constructedness of ”nature” that inflect organicity throughout the geographical and spectatorship, the Promise Keepers reverberated perceived sexualities and public performances that were only possible through corporeal and geographic mergings.

In the twentieth century the the “natural earth” and the “natural body” have been entirely deconstructed, stripped of all pretense to static knowledge.  The binaries of somatic/performative and nature/construction once broken down reveal a liberated field upon which a polyphony of meanings, textures, and nuances can retain the traces of the past while invoking the present through newer designs and constructions, whereby gender, sex, sexuality and the very notion of “nature” as a pure and isolate form is rethought.  The social fabric of reading bodies and spaces in creating identities is necessarily part of a cultural métissage in which narratives of body or space are not to be perceived as linear, time not frozen, and meaning certainly not fixed or limited to the binaries of real/subversive.  Unless we understand all language as necessarily other and all somatic and geographical bodies as necessarily constructed, we risk repeating the discursive conjunctions of center/margin, hetero/homo, that gender theory is precipitously transmitting in the effort to free and make visible the queer subject.  Perhaps we, as a culture, are so obsessed with outing identity, that we fail to recognize the queerness in all bodies and language.  Neither the body nor speech was ever really real and neither was ever a true referent to a singular, opaque, normative experience.  Let us return to the Non-Body as that constructed site of being and language.  Let us release ourselves into space.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Roland Barthes.  Paris:  Seuil, 1975.

Benjamin, Walter.  “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man.”  Reflections:  Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings.  Trans.  Edmund Jephcott.  New York:  Schocken Books, 1978.

Butler, Judith.  Gender Trouble:  Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.  New York:  Routledge, 1990.

Canguilhem, Georges.  “Machine and Organism.”   Incorporations.  Eds. Johnathan Crary and Standford Kwinter.New York:  Zone, 1992.

Cremaster I. (1993) Dir. Matthew Barney.  Barbara Gladstone Gallery.

De Beauvoir, Simone.  The Second Sex. Trans. and ed. H. M. Parhsley.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1989.

Foucault, Michel.  Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.  Trans. Alan Sheridan.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1979.

—.  The History of Sexuality  Volume I:  An Introduction.  Trans. Robert Hurley.  New York:  Pantheon Books, 1978.

Glissant, Edouard.  Le discours antillais.  Paris:  Seuil, 1981.

Haraway, Donna J.  Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.  New York: Routledge, 1991.

Interview with Avital Ronell.  Angry Women.  Ed.  Andrea Juno and V. Vale.  San Francisco:   Re/Search Pubications, 1991.

Irigaray, Luce.  This Sex Which is not One.  Trans.  Catherine Porter.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1985.

Malti-Douglas, Fedwa-Malti.  Woman’s Body, Woman’s Word:  Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1991.

Paris Is Burning. Directed by Jennie Livingston. 1990

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky.  Epistemology of the Closet.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1990.

Smithson, Robert.  Robert Smithson:  The Collected Writings.  Ed. Jack Flam.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1996.

Stone, Roseanne Alluquère.  “Virtual Systems.”   Incorporations.  Eds. Johnathan Crary and Standford Kwinter.New York:  Zone, 1992.

Stone, Sandy.  “The Empire Strikes Back:  A Posttranssexual Manifesto.”  Body Guards:  The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity.  Ed. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub.  New York:  Routledge, 1991.